Just so we all know who Camille Saint-Saens is, he's the guy who composed this. And you didn't.
The Swan, from Carnival of the Animals, by Camille Saint-Saens. Cello: Mischa Maisky. Introduced by Roger Moore.
Continue below the fold, and you'll get to hear one of the great stereo-buster orchestral works by Saint-Saens, The "Organ" Symphony.
When I was younger, when we wanted to test our stereo speakers, there were a few LPs we would turn to first. Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (you may know it as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) was one. We'll be getting to that before the year's over. This was one of the other ones.
I had a pair of JBL monitor speakers, some of the best you could get, that I inherited from my brother's music business. The woofers were torn and loose, which made them all the better, because you could watch it wobble like it was an eye that was going to pop out. Yeah!
Anytime a friend said he just bought a new stereo, I was over there in a heartbeat with Saint-Saens and Strauss and Mahler!
What makes the Saint-Saens #3 so especially good for this is... well, the organ. In case anybody doesn't know, let's remind everybody what a postromantic organ is. It's not something you can just roll onto a stage. It's usually a permanent part of the building.
The Great Organ at Royal Albert Hall, Liverpool, England, as illustrated during its first performance.
They still use the same organ at Albert Hall. Albert Hall: the place we know how many holes it takes to fill. There are modern photographs of it, but it's covered with stage junk. I prefer this drawing. Do you see that little guy in the very center of the drawing, just above the orchestra pit? That's the organist. That whole thing behind him and the orchestra isn't just baroque ornamentation. It's the Great Organ, and it's not even the biggest organ in the world by a longshot. So, obviously, this is not your dad's Hammond. You can't just pack it and move it to another venue.
The nineteenth century saw an arms race in the size of organs. Giggle yourselves to death over that, if you wish; I don't care. By the time we get to Saint-Saens Symphony #3, the arms race was at its peak. He had no logistical problems in finding a hall that could perform it.
The range of human hearing goes from about 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz. Hertz meaning sound vibrations per second. Most people don't even have hearing that wide, especially if you're an old fart like I am. Organs like the one at Royal Albert Hall are very often able to go well below the range of human hearing. What's the point of that? Subsonic vibrations that you can't hear can still be felt. Blow your socks off, man. One recording of the Saint-Saens at Royal Albert Hall goes as low as 16 Hz for instance. Many recording devices don't even bother trying. So a GOOD recording of the Saint-Saens is a precious thing.
I can't promise you this is a good recording, because, well, face it, it's Youtube, and that takes away some of the audio quality. If I was in the market for a new CD of this, though, the Pretre one is the one I'd want to buy. Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1959 recording has a big following, but -- face it -- you want the best audio, not the best performance, when you listen to this sucker.
So let's go to it!
Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, "The Organ Symphony." First movement: Adagio — Allegro moderato. The Paris Conservatoire Orchestra conducted by Georges Pretre. Maurice Durufle on the Salle Walgram organ.
The symphony begins softly and mysteriously, wandering with a vague tonality, far from the C minor we've been advertised. It reminds me a bit of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde theme. That might be deliberate. This material makes scattered bits and pieces of what will become the main theme.
Exposition First Theme (1:10)
The first theme begins, establishing a firm home key of C minor. This theme is the main actor of the symphony. It will appear in different forms in all four movements. Here, in its first appearance, it has a subdued but agitated tension. First we hear it in the strings, at 1:45, in the woodwinds.
At 2:20, it starts to build up steam and works itself towards an orchestral mini-climax. As it fades, we begin to transition to a new key and...
Exposition Second Theme (3:38)
A new, gentler, contrasting major key theme that lifts the tension. This too builds up to an impressive orchestral mini-climax (beginning at 4:15), brass and drums all out.
Development Section (5:06)
As the climax fades, the agitated playing of the strings emerges from underneath it, and we transition into the development. A tripping rhythm develops. At 5:19, the opening Tristan-ish motif returns briefly in the woodwinds.
(5:48) Parts of the gentler second theme are now developed, the key ascending in steps. The first theme rudely intrudes, creating conflict. At 6:50 the conflict reaches a head. Leading to...
Recapitulation First Theme Again (7:10) With a hard thump from the drums, we return to the home key of C minor and the main theme, but it is NOT subdued this time! At 8:26 we begin to transition to...
Recapitulation Second Theme Again (8:56)
The second theme returns, but in the wrong key, at first in F then in E, the key that the movement will end in.
This is unorthodox but DELIBERATE. Saint-Saens is treating the first two movements as an organic entity, the first movement merging straight into the second. It will be in D flat.
This is less of a coda, more like a bridge passage to the second movement. It is reminiscent of the develoment section. The tripping rhythm is back, the Tristan-like motif returns... But then it very gently drops us down from E major to D-Flat major, setting us up for the second movement.
The video clips for this symphony are broken up into four parts, one part for each movement. I can't help that. But the last strains we heard merge directly into the next clip.
------------------------ END OF FIRST, BEGINNING OF SECOND MOVEMENT -------------------------
Saint-Saëns Symphony #3, Second Movement: Poco adagio
As the first movement fades away, the temperature drops. It's like cool, still water now. The atmosphere has changed and becomes sacred.
As the movement begins, the organ finally makes its appearance, but in its gentlest form, forming a soft cradle for the main theme of this movement. It also serves to create the sacred feeling of this movement, organ and harps creating a sense of being in church.
The format here is like that of the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth: A main theme that consists of a long melody in two parts, with variations on that theme.
We begin with organ and harps for accompaniment, the organ playing long chords. The main theme is played in unison by the strings, creating a single voice. Saint-Saens seems to deliberately eschew counterpoint in this movement, setting up a nice contrast for the fugal final movement to come.
At 1:20, the woodwinds take up the theme, and the other instruments come in to provide support. It is comforting and serene.
At 2:20 comes the second half of this long melody. It's based on the Tristan-like theme from the symphony's opening. The use of violas in a single voice here only further cements in my mind the comparison with Wagner's Tristan.
At 4:02, the theme fades away, and the concluding chords of the organ are all that are left for a moment. And then begins the first variation. The violins present us a more ornamented version of the main theme and give it a more poignant harmonic twist.
At 5:09 it seamlessly merges into a more ornamented variation on the second half of the theme.
Intruder alert! Into this serene, angelic atmosphere, at 5:55, an ominous minor key contrasting section sneaks in on tiptoes. (Actually, on plucked strings). It's the theme from the first movement, the theme that won't go away.
At 7:02, as the last variation begins, the tip-toeing plucked strings stay with us.
At 7:33, it reaches upwards, upwards again, UPWARDS AGAIN... And oooooooh.... climax to the movement.
We finish off with post-orgasmic cradling sounds.
--------------------- END OF SECOND MOVEMENT ---------------------
Coffee break time! Grab a cup. I'm going to be sipping out of my own special Cup of Triumph, thanks to the generosity of a Dailykos Thurday Classical Music patron! Mmmm... Brazil Cerrado.
(Really, I had to take a break just now so I went and picked about four pounds of cherry tomatoes. Now my hands smell like tomato bushes. Nice. I like to smell like tomato bushes.)
The Saint-Saens Symphony #3 is designed so that the first and second movements run together and merge into each other, and the third and fourth do as well. This tends to limit your coffee breaks. Part of the powerful effect of the final movement comes from the sudden BLAAAAAST of the organ at the beginning of the finale. So I regret that they are in separate clips. However, the clips came that way, and, besides, it's easier for me to comment on it like that.
So let's resume where we left off...
Saint-Saëns Symphony #3, Third Movement: Allegro Moderato -- Presto
Out of the major key bliss of the second movement, we return to minor key hell. This movement is a traditional scherzo. The first theme should seem familiar. It's a variation on the main theme of the first movement. The theme that just won't go away.
At 1:50, a middle section labeled Presto (meaning, to be played quickly, or at least faster than allegro) begins. A fast chirping theme is played in the woodwinds, accompanied by playful glissandos on the piano that seem to whiz right past your nose.
Does the "fast chirping woodwind" theme seem familiar? It should. It's a major key variation on... the main theme of the first movement! Again...
At 3:57, the tempo slows back to allegro moderato and the first theme of the movement returns.
At 5:44, the Presto seems like it's trying to return. But there is a new theme emerging underneath it from the basses. As the presto fades away and it is played by just the violins, it becomes poignant. We can hear more clearly here that it's based on the second movement.
As this fades away, before the movement ends, there is just a touch, for a moment, in the deep basses, of the first movement's main theme. Now in a major key. A feeling of tension has been created. All the better for what is coming...
Saint-Saëns Symphony #3, Fourth Movement: Maestoso — Allegro
BLAAAST! Did we mention there was an organ in this symphony? Yup. We heard it a little bit in the second movement, but not like this, here, where it really stands up and takes command of the auditorium. It is almost used more as a special effect in this context than as a musical instrument.
The theme that emerged from the basses at the end of the previous Presto steps forward and announces its presence. BLAAAAST again! And again.
At 0:33, we finally get the famous march theme of the finale. This was used, in different ways, as the theme music for the film Babe. The organ drops out, and the strings present it with the trickling-water sound of four-hands piano, another orchestral effect unusual in symphonies.
This march theme is based on the main theme of the first movement, which we've heard several times. But listen closely, and you can hear some other simlarities. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like the Dies Irae! Only in a triumphant major key rather than the grotesque minor key that we heard it in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.
But it also reminds us of something else: Beethoven's Ode to Joy theme. What Saint Saens has done in this symphony is recreate Beethoven's Ninth, but instead of saving a choir of human voices for special effect, he has used an organ! The general form of the symphony is similar in other ways, using the same Beethoven "Triumph Symphony" format.
At 1:14, the organ takes up the march theme and the orchestra piles on with all its forces, the brass turning it into a fanfare.
Exposition First Theme (1:56)
The rhythm of the march changes a little bit, and it is transformed into a fugue, a form traditionally associated with the organ. More instruments pile on, the vertical density increases.
Exposition Second Theme (2:34)
We hit an air pocket. The other instruments drop out, leaving just the organ. An oboe emerges here above the organ, and plays one of the most beautiful themes Saint-Saens ever composed/, and he was a very talented composer of melodies.
Development Section (3:24)
The basses come in. The rhythm changes, the key changes, the mood darkens.
At 3:44, the brass repeat the theme that emerged from the end of the last movement's presto. A section of vertically dense counterpoint ensues
At 4:19, the march theme heroically tries to break through. The organ joins in to assist. The key continues to change, ascending. The atmosphere is turbulent.
Recapitulation Second Theme Again (5:17)
Skipping the return of the first theme, at 5:17, the mood breaks, and the second theme returns, taking us finally back to the home key of C major, warmth and comfort.
Coda (or second development, if you prefer) (6:05)
You can describe it either way. Like in the beginning of the first development, the brass announce the theme from the end of the Presto. It's similar to the first development UNTIL...
(6:44) The deep brass and the organ restate part of the main theme. The strings whir around restlessly. The tension rises. The organ comes in with its heavy foot... And with full orchestra, we come home to C major, restating the march theme.
But the march speeds up! We can see we're heading towards the end. The climactic race begins.
At 8:19, the organ bass pedals plunge through the floor (not necessarily audible on this clip, so buy the album) as we converge on the ear-shattering final chords.
I don't usually try to do four movements in one diary. It's difficult, and I suspect most people don't read it all. If I was going to cover this, I didn't want to leave any of it out, because the four movements of this really are inseparable they are woven together.
Next week: Dvorak! We're going to listen to lots of Dvorak in the next few weeks. I will start with one of Dvorak's chamber pieces -- and I'm open to suggestions on that, although I'm leaning towards The American Quartet.